Making Healthy Diet & Exercise Choices

How food and exercise can impact your fight against chronic mental disorders.

Written by Jana K. Hoffman

01 Making healthy lifestyle choices can have positive impacts on OCD sufferers and aid in treatments.

02 Eating foods rich in tryptophan can help boost serotonin levels in the body.

03 When you exercise your body releases endorphins which helps create serotonin.

OCD3, Ep5: Making Healthy Diet & Exercise Choices for Mental Health, OCD

Healthy diet and exercise choices play an important role in the lives of those with a chronic disorder like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). There are very simple ways to introduce a smarter diet and movement into your daily routine that could have a positive impact over the long term.

We sat down with personal trainer and dietitian Jenn Trevino to learn more about the science of a healthy diet and the importance of movement. Trevino says the brain controls every system and function in the body. In order for the brain to send the right signals, you need to consume the proper nutrients so the body can produce the proper chemicals. When you have a chronic disorder, your body lacks serotonin. According to Trevino, you may be able to increase the production of serotonin by changing your diet.

Let’s break it down. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. One of those amino acids is called tryptophan (found in foods like chicken, fish, turkey and grains), which is converted into serotonin once it’s broken down. So, by eating more protein with tryptophan, you’re giving your body more serotonin.

When you give your body the nutrients it needs, you can use that fuel to release endorphins through exercise. In doing so, you’re creating more serotonin, which may improve the process of sending signals to the brain. It’s important to remember that diet and exercise go hand-in-hand and the results can be more powerful when combined.

Here are a few easy ways to get started:

  • Eat single-ingredient foods that aren’t processed. It’s called clean eating because you’re not consuming man-made food chemicals.
  • Introduce basic movements into your day. Stand up at your desk. Take a walk. Go for a run. Ride a bike.
  • Find an activity that you love. Not only will you enjoy participating, but you’ll also become a part of a community that participates together. 

If you believe intrusive thoughts could be affecting your ability to lead a normal life, contact a local psychologist to start on your personal path toward healing. Diet and exercise may complement therapy and should be done in conjunction with not instead of traditional methods.

Read full video transcript below:

Aaron Harvey (AH): Jenn, thanks for having us down today.

Jenn Trevino (JT): Thank you!

AH: We wanted to learn a little bit more about diet and nutrition and how that can help with mental health.

JT: Of course.

AH: So what's the science behind a healthy diet?

JT: The brain controls everything, all the systems in the body. For the brain to get the proper signals in the proper amounts, you need the proper amount of nutrients to then make those chemicals in the body.

AH: So if that's sort of the science of what's happening, how does that relate to mental health?

JT: Serotonin deficiency in mental health and depression, OCD, that's one thing that can hopefully be increased by changing your diet. Proteins are made of amino acids. I don't know if you've heard that word, but they're kind of the building blocks of protein. One of those amino acids, called tryptophan, is actually converted into serotonin once it’s processed in your body. So, generalization, you eat more proteins that have this amino acid tryptophan, which is found in pretty much all proteins, chicken, fish, grains, you can increase the amount of serotonin you have in your body.

AH: So, is that all I need to do? Is that the first step? To start eating amino acids with tryptophan?

JT: No. You can't just change one habit and expect huge results. You need to make sure that your body is functioning at its optimal level. The way it does that is making sure you have all of the right nutrients, all of the players at hand.

AH: So if you're powering your mind and body with the proper nutrients, how does that now relate to exercise?

JT: We’ve all heard endorphins and serotonin, those get thrown out there, and just to kinda show the correlation, there have been some studies that do show, the higher your endorphins are, it will actually increase your serotonin as well. Adding exercise into it is actually going to increase that serotonin kind of by a second pathway.

AH: So how do you get started on this path?

JT: Very simply. Eat single-ingredient foods. You do that, you’re definitely going to avoid anything that is manmade in a chemical-processing plant. You take your chicken, you take your rice, your beans, you take your salt, pepper, cilantro. You cook that all together, and you’ve got this nice healthy meal made up of single-ingredient foods. Everything is a part of that your body can use.

AH: Sounds like a great way to get started with diet. How do you get started with exercise?

JT: All you really need to do is move. Just start with basic movement throughout the day. Our whole lives are spent either at school sitting down, or at work sitting down, or you go home and you’re sitting down in front of the TV. It’s taking those moments you can to get up, run around, walk around, and just kind of be active as much as you can. Then, the next step that you take is finding an activity that you really enjoy. That way, not only are you gonna want to do it even more. But it’s a way for you to kind of, maybe get involved socially, within the community. And you have this group of friends, and once you have that it improves overall mental health and well-being.

AH: So for someone with a chronic disorder like OCD, you need to be thinking about the future, not about an immediate result.

JT: Right. Exactly. You gotta find habits and make your body as healthy as possible to live with a condition that is never going to go away. And everything starts with a choice. The choice to make healthy changes in your life.

About the author

Jana Hoffman is a writer, editor and storyteller based in San Francisco. She is currently working as a copywriter at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Outside of work, she is a trained volunteer for Crisis Text Line and has been open about her experiences with mental health.

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